Seven years ago, I was sitting in the Daily Grind, my favorite Front Royal coffeeshop, with my friend Elizabeth. We were talking about discernment and the religious life. I remember exactly where we were sitting that spring evening, conversing when we probably should have been studying for finals. Four months later, she entered the Nashville Dominicans. Earlier this week, she made final vows.
This morning, the Church in Nashville witnessed a similar event, when two young men were ordained to the priesthood of Christ.
The beautiful crucifix spurred my meditation today during the ordination, and I was thankful for its presence. The cross reminds us of the Mystery that gives meaning to the radical decisions made in its presence. These things happen in front of a crucifix for a reason … because they only make sense when we know Love.
As we celebrate the sacraments within our church walls, the crucifix is there to remind us that in those sacraments we touch the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
It is there to remind us that Love is the Cross. The life-changing moments the Cathedral witnessed this week — final vows, first vows, ordination to the priesthood — only make sense when we understand that Love = surrender.
Whether it’s the Sister that signs her vows on the altar of sacrifice or the priest who puts his hands in the hands of his bishop and promises him obedience, these vocations are only possible when when we make ourselves vulnerable and sacrifice the I to Him.
Marriage is no different. When Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church,” he immediately reminds us what that looks like: “and gave Himself up for Her.” (Eph 5:25). And it’s not as if marriage is just a nice metaphor for Christ’s love. Rather, Christ’s love is the reality of which marriage is a mere shadow. (see Eph 5:32) Marriage is an imitation of Christ’s love, which is not an emotion or a warm fuzzy feeling, but the Cross.
If we are living out our vocations — whatever they might be — we will be carrying the Cross. If we aren’t, perhaps we need to examine our lives a bit. It’s not that we shouldn’t/can’t/won’t be happy … but if we aren’t sacrificing, we’re not living. Likewise, we never seek a different state of life to avoid the Cross… because we’re just going to find another cross waiting for us.
One line in the prayers at an ordination always jumps out at me, and today was no different:
Imitate what you celebrate
To be a good priest, it’s not enough to practice what you preach. You must imitate what you celebrate. The Paschal Mystery, Christ’s love on the cross, must not only be actualized on the altar at Mass, but must also be actualized in your life. The altar of sacrifice becomes the marriage bed of Christ and His Church, and the union bears fruit. If the priest imitates what he celebrates, his marriage to Christ’s Church will be fruitful in the life of his parish. If you see a truly life-giving parish, take a look at its priest. I’d be willing to bet he is living a life imitating what he celebrates. He is pouring out his life in love for his Bride, the Church.
But the command extends beyond the priesthood. Imitate what you celebrate. What do we celebrate in marriage, but Christ’s relationship with His Bride the Church. If we are truly imitating what we celebrate, marriage will be that sacrificial love of the Cross. Every vocation requires sacrifice.
During the ordination rite, the young men to be ordained lie prostrate in front of the altar while the Litany of Saints is chanted. An exterior demonstration of an inward mystery; a tangible, visible sign of what is about to happen sacramentally. Likewise, the Sisters after taking first vows and final vows lie prostrate in front of the crucifix as the Bishop prays over them.
Love is surrender. Love is vulnerability in the hands of the Beloved.
But again, the married couple doesn’t escape the cross. In a different way, the spouses lie prostrate as well. In the marital embrace, they surrender to each other and to the Cross. (This is what is so scandalous about birth control — at the very moment you are supposed to be surrendering to the beloved, you are doing the exact opposite. At the moment of self-gift, you are holding back.)
As I watch my friends make these radical decisions — whether it’s marriage, priesthood, or religious life — I thank God that He has given His grace for these heroic witnesses. I pray that I too may have the courage to accept His Cross, in whatever form it may come to me.